Press Release

NSF Grant Helping UA to Transform Astronomy Education

By SpaceRef Editor
July 8, 2008
Filed under , ,

The University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Center for Astronomy Education has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s largest undergraduate education grant – the Phase 3 Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement grant.

The center’s team received $2 million in funding from the NSF to develop its Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars, or CATS, program.

Chris Impey, UA distinguished professor of astronomy and CATS principal investigator, leads a team that includes co-investigators Ed Prather, associate staff scientist at the Steward Observatory; Gina Brissenden, UA science education research specialist; Kevin Lee, research assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Nebraska; and Douglas Duncan, director of astronomical laboratories at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

CATS already has launched the first of many collaborative research projects, which involves more than 4,000 students from more than 70 different classes in schools ranging from community colleges to doctorate-granting institutions. The results are helping to identify which teaching methods and classroom environments are having the most success at helping students learn – most notably in the area of astronomy.

The Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program seeks to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) education for all undergraduate students. The program supports efforts to create, adapt and disseminate new learning materials and teaching strategies, develop faculty expertise, implement educational innovations, assess learning , evaluate innovations and conduct research on STEM teaching and learning. The program supports three types of projects representing three different phases of development, ranging from small, exploratory investigations to large, comprehensive projects.

“Our community – that is, all the people teaching Astro 101 – has really matured over the last decade,” Impey said. “We’re moving away from making decisions about how we teach based on just what we believe is effective, to making these decisions based on what research shows to be effective. By this I mean we’re finally starting to treat our teaching as a scientific endeavor worthy of our scholarly efforts. ”

“Receiving this generous funding from the NSF will allow CAE to dramatically increase the number of astronomy faculty around the nation who embrace and successfully implement teaching strategies that are proven to really help students learn,” Prather said. “This is a really exciting and ambitious project, one that has the ability to change the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of students each year across the country.”

“Nationally, the number of researchers focusing predominantly on improving teaching and learning in Astro 101 has been extraordinarily small, with the majority of this research linked to the Center for Astronomy Education here at the UA,” Brissenden said. “If we are going to change the way our nation teaches astronomy, then we need a national cadre of experts working to solve the problem.”

Peter Strittmatter, Steward Observatory director, said he and the rest of those at the observatory “are quite proud of CAE and the contributions they have made, nationally, to improving astronomy education.”

“We have already seen positive impacts of the CAE approach within our own teaching program and are confident that the CATS effort will bring similar benefits to the teaching of astronomy nationally,” he said.

For the past several years, Brissenden and Prather have traveled across the country for NASA, conducting workshops for astronomy and space science instructors on how to improve their teaching. Through these workshops, and online outreach efforts, they have reached about 1,000 middle school and college instructors, many of whom will work with them on the new CATS initiative.

“It is collaboration and community that will help create sustainable change in the way we teach Astro 101 in this country. The Community of Astronomy Teaching Scholars will be the very backbone of this change,” Brissenden said.

SpaceRef staff editor.